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November 28, 2011

One Organization, Two Ideas About Innovation

I spent most of last weekend doing what I hope you did: I spent a lot of time with family, I enjoyed some home-cooked meals, and I took advantage of the surprisingly temperate November weather in DC. This social and highly engaged behavior couldn't last a whole four-day weekend, of course. So late one evening I caved and wound up retreating into Netflix Instant, which is now showing Page One, a documentary about a legacy organization that has a powerful brand name but is struggling to overcome "that's the way we've always done it" thinking and find new ways to innovate and provide value.

Which is to say, it's about The New York Times. The film follows a year in the life of the paper circa 2010, as it attempts to respond to a collapsing advertising market and the explosion of countless new communications tools that threaten to render dead-tree media obsolete. Various pundits (including past ASAE Annual Meeting speaker Clay Shirky) smartly discuss the paper's prospects going forward, but the heart of the movie is the collection of writers and editors around the Times' media desk. They had plenty of big stories to cover: the Tribune Media company declared bankruptcy, WikiLeaks released a raft of classified files, NBC Universal announced a merger with Comcast. At every turn the reporters and editors needed to do the same thing: Test the available facts for their accuracy and for how they're being pitched. Stakeholders want their stories to appear in a certain way in what was once universally accepted as the paper of record. It's the job of Times reporters to push back against that spin.

The irony here is palpable: While the Times' reporters are challenging received wisdom practically as part of their job descriptions, they're doing it at an institution that's often been loath to break free of old models of thinking. That mistake is as true at associations as it is at the Times; in some ways that behavior is baked into the very being of organizations. In 1977, sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan wrote a paper, "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony," (PDF) that argued that an organization tends to sustain itself in part by perpetuating "myths" about itself—stories that can be damaging when they're invoked to put the brakes on any attempts at change. (In case you don't feel like curling up with scholarly articles, a brief summary is here.) It strikes me that the problem at the Times is that it maintains two contradictory institutional impulses:

  1. At the rank-and-file level it respects a base of employees that questions and challenges as part of its duties.
  2. At the leadership level it cultivates a resistance to change, precisely because it's constructed a myth about itself around point #1.

I'm being a little broad-brush here. Certainly the Times has been much more savvy about responding to new technologies and reader habits than a lot of its media brethren. But it makes me wonder if some associations that prioritize innovation do it at all levels—celebrating it in certain departments, or around certain initiatives, but not around the entire organization and not at the level of leadership. Often innovation is something that's discussed as something that needs to trickle down to staff and members; what if it needs to trickle up to leadership?

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November 21, 2011

Analyze Social to Tell a More Compelling Story

The following is a guest post from David Nour, managing partner of The Nour Group, Inc., author of the forthcoming Return on Impact—Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships (ASAE, 2012), and general-session speaker at ASAE's 2011 Technology Conference & Expo.

Does your association leadership get the bigger sense of social? Not just social networking or media—"doing" social such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube—but becoming a social organization?

There is a Persian story that goes something like this: A group of villagers is weaving a basket together. A wise man walks by and asks them what they are doing. The first says, "I am pushing one straw against another." The second says, "I am making a basket." The third answers, "I'm helping a man carry food to feed his family."

Though they were all three working on the same project, they each saw their jobs very differently. How do your staff, members, or volunteer leaders see their role in social? Is it as the same mundane pushing of one woven strip against another, or do they see a little bigger than that—which is the basket itself—or do they see a purpose for why they are doing what they are doing?

The difference is that the last villager was engaged. Social analytics allow astute organizations to listen more intently to capture and share amazing stories of those who are engaged in the mission of the organization and the impact they create daily.

According to Forrester Research, every year more than 500 billion consumer opinions are shared online. The secret of monetizing these highly connected relationships for any organization is finding the right individuals and engaging them to talk about the right things in the right places. Those opinions, often internalized through stories, are affecting talent acquisition, revenue growth, and emotional loyalty and are making the advocates who write them highly influential, since they have the ability to shape thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors.

If a brand can be defined as a vision delivered, social analytics is the barometer of how well that vision is, in fact, being delivered, implemented, and applied to solving business challenges or taking advantage of market opportunities.

Metrics should measure against agreed-upon objectives and values and help to correct your course along the way--more like a dial you turn up or down than a switch you turn on or off. Here is the problem: The overemphasis on social media tools—propagated by a cottage industry of vendors and platforms, once-a-week conferences, and fly-by-night consultants and their glorified blogs—is the tail wagging the dog. Too often organizations allow the tools to dictate rather than define what to measure.

So how does an organization tell more compelling and interesting stories from its social-analytics capabilities?

Social analytics should help organizations begin to humanize business operations and tear down silos between internal teams. By designing and implementing listening platforms, the organization can uncover insights and create more meaningful and influential relationships. The narrative from online interactions fuels connected relationships. Great storytelling by organizations about the benefits they've been able to create for a broad range of stakeholders—from highly empowered employees to engaged members and loyal customers, to supportive investors and media advocates—consistently sets them apart.

Word of mouth is the gift that keeps on giving and when it comes to connected relationships; advocates attract and influence other advocates. Beyond promoting products or services, conversations between individuals about an organization can be incredibly insightful, but only if the organization is savvy enough to listen and not interrupt, interject, defend, position, or posture. You must simply listen, learn, and translate experiences into compelling narratives. Connected people who become advocates talk about the organization, even when the organization isn't listening. Connected relationships are trusted amongst their peers and within their microcommunities, as they aid and influence others down their individual decision journeys. Although the reach of one connected relationship may be minimal, as an aggregate, the total reach can have a strong business impact on any organization.

Social analytics can help an organization emphasize authenticity. In our current low-trust environment, true passion is contagious and genuine connections create influential cause and effect. Results of generosity are not just communicated; with social analytics, they're amplified.

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November 17, 2011

Quick clicks: Volunteer management edition

Last Thursday, I was busy talking about blogging rather than actually blogging, so Quick clicks took a week off. This week's edition has some extra meat to make up for it, including five posts relating to volunteer management to start us off.

Volunteer management 1. Jennifer Bennett at Engaging Volunteers shares her experience as a volunteer manager and all the inherent ups and downs. "I believe that giving someone the opportunity to make a difference or change something is worth the work," she writes.

Volunteer management 2. Lowell Aplebaum outlines a different approach for developing association volunteers: rather than explaining a role, asking the volunteer about goals and desires and matching a role to meet them.

Volunteer management 3. Terry Coatta offers some tips on maximizing a volunteer's "return on time," based on his own experience as an association volunteer.

Volunteer management 4. David Patt, CAE, tells a story that shows why it might not be a good idea for association staff to chair volunteer committees.

Volunteer management 5. Eric Lanke, CAE, shares a story of a committee chair who alienated his committee members. The cause? Not knowing which kind of committee he was best suited for. "Some committees make decisions and other committees get things done," he writes.

Crisis communications. Deirdre Reid examines the lessons to be learned about crisis communication from the National Restaurant Association amid the controversy surrounding Herman Cain, and Maggie McGary zeroes in on the social media mess the NRA has faced. Good conversation in the comments on both posts, as well.

New learning formats. Dave Lutz says shorter conference presentation formats (Pecha Kucha, Ignite, and so forth) aren't great learning opportunities on their own, and he identifies six specific factors that can make short presentation formats most effective.

Conference missions. Sue Pelletier asks "What's your conference's why?"

Association creation and development. Greg Kohn at Virtual Inc.'s Association Management Blog shares advice on how to keep a new association from falling victim to "the post-launch blues."

Speaker development. Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, lists some common reasons why speakers at association events fall short and offers several methods for vetting speakers and preparing them for improved results.

Work ethic. Stefanie Reeves, CAE, shares an association "fairy tale," replete with a princess, a wicked witch, and a taskforce report.

Management. Jamie Notter writes that, in the case of most management practices, "we have no idea what we're doing," and the first step to fixing it is admitting it.

Engagement. Anna Caraveli exposes myth no. 1 about member engagement: counting by numbers, and she argues that engagement should be measured in much deeper terms.

Google+. Maddie Grant, CAE, gives an early primer on setting up a Google+ business page for your association.

Policies and procedures. Wes Trochlil shares "a great example of managing to the rule" rather than the exception.

Blogging. Here's where I was last week: the Progress U. Blogger Summit, hosted by Delcor. KiKi L'Italien and Bill Walker have rounded up recaps and photos from the event. Plus, Dan Brady at the Giving Forum shared some blogging tips from our old friend Lisa Junker, CAE, and yours truly.


November 15, 2011

What's a Weak Tie Worth?

Call it a bad habit: Too often, we think of "habit" as a four-letter word, a thing we're morally obligated to shake off, like smoking or celebrity-gossip websites. (I conquered the former about six years ago; my battle with the latter continues.) So I was struck by a recent Slate piece, written by management experts Chip and Dan Heath and bearing the Slate-ishly counterintuitive headline, "Four Excellent Habits."

The piece lays out four lessons, largely drawn from the world of sociology, that have the potential to improve your career or business. The tips might be familiar to readers of their most recent book, Switch, but it's worth reading as a refresher. (And if you haven't read Switch, you can check out a Q&A Associations Now conducted with them last year.)

The third lesson the Heaths address in the article has been much-discussed in the past year or so. It has to do with the term "the strength of weak ties," a phrase coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter to explain why distant acquaintences often are better resources for job hunters than close friends and family. Long theory short, those acquaintances are the repositories of job tips that you likely would never hear about in your immediate social circle. Weak ties are indisputably powerful on the job hunt: As the Heaths point out, "in about 83 percent of the cases, the critical job lead came from a weak tie."

But does the "weak ties" concept scale? Are weak ties worth pursuing if you're trying to expand your organization's membership, running for office—or, say, trying to topple a government? Malcolm Gladwell expressed skepticism about that last point earlier this year when he considered the role of social media in the Arab Spring protests: "The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency," he wrote. "But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism."

Gladwell caught flak for diminishing the value of social media, but I see his point—there is only so much that two weak ties are willing to give each other. Need me to provide a job tip or a bit of advice? Sure. Need me to drop everything and join your revolution? Well, a skeptic may ask, what's in it for me? What connects both cases is that the weak tie is asked to make a decision: How much information and assistance am I willing to provide to people I don't know very well?

That's what makes weak ties relevant to associations. It strikes me that many organizations are very good at slicing and dicing their demographics—understanding their members' age groups, incomes, job roles, and general interests. Associations can target-market well. But it's a trickier business to build connections to "weak ties"—drawing on the less-engaged member, or the person who should be a member but isn't, even for the kind of occasional requests for assistance that a job-hunter might ask for. Is it possible for weak ties become strong ones? Or are organizations destined to be stuck in the 1-9-90 model of engagement, where a small minority of engaged members sets direction for the whole?

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November 9, 2011

Dispatch, Day 2: Healthcare Associations Conference: Preparing for the Storm

The following is a guest post from Frank Fortin, CAE, chief digital strategist and communications director at the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Are you going to be in the kitchen or on the menu?

Time and again, that was the issue at the core of many conversations during the second day of ASAE's 2011 Healthcare Associations Conference in Baltimore, which ended Tuesday.

Whether our healthcare association represents doctors, nurses, hospitals, or something else, we are at an inflection point. The federal healthcare-reform law precipitated much of this, but if it was only about a law (which is only partially implemented), we wouldn't be feeling this way.

The first session I attended Tuesday was a terrific presentation by Shawn Scott from the North Carolina Medical Society, who walked us through how her staff and members are remaking their organization, even though her society is staunchly opposed to the federal reform law.

I next attended an offbeat session by economist Richard O'Sullivan on the five trends that are affecting healthcare associations. One might have judged his presentation too esoteric for the daily concerns of a healthcare association, but his five trends made it clear to me that we're dealing with environmental forces that will persist even if the Supreme Court or Congress eviscerates the Affordable Care Act.

Finally, Dr. Susan Nedza, an emergency physician who has worked at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the American Medical Association, and other organizations, asked provocative questions about how we're going to lead our associations through these changes. She simply summarized the stark challenge: Provide better care, to more people, at a markedly lower cost.

Her most interesting concept was to embrace disruptive collaboration: working with non-traditional outsiders to address intractable problems. Conflict will inevitably result from such work, but innovation may also ensue, particularly when known approaches are getting us nowhere.

This was all brave talk about change, but I also heard lots of fear, loathing, and anxiety at the conference. Are we really that powerless to help our members face the future?

I got an insight from a book I picked up on my way home today. Jim Collins, the guy who wrote Good to Great, has just published Great by Choice, about companies that thrive in chaotic times. He starts by comparing the journeys of Roald Amundsen and Richard Fulton Scott, who famously and tragically raced to the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen got there first and returned safely to a hero's welcome. Scott got there 34 days later but froze to death trying to get back home.

What was the difference? According to Collins, Amundsen prepared for worst. He didn't wait for an unexpected storm to discover he needed more strength and endurance. His preparations were unorthodox, detailed in the extreme, but he was able to handle anything that came his way. Scott's preparations assumed one scenario, and he got another. He paid for the gamble with his life.

Our storm is here, and there's no predicting where it will take us. Just as the folks at the North Carolina Medical Society refused to let their personal views blind them to the adaption and change they needed, we have to prepare our members for the rough weather ahead, position our associations to serve them differently, and work with them to create a new future. To do anything else would be negligent.


November 8, 2011

The pursuit of openness and inclusivity

In the past couple of weeks, I've been working with colleagues to set up a new discussion forum in relation to ASAE's upcoming Volunteer Leadership Retreat. The goal is expanding the number and diversity of viewpoints contributing toward organizational planning.

That's no easy task, and it's one that I think many associations struggle with. By now associations are (or should be) well aware of the business cases for improving diversity and inclusion and allowing for more open, transparent ways of doing business. It's clear that these are worthy goals to pursue. But a lot of the challenge comes in the execution. Even if you're highly motivated, it turns out being more open and inclusive isn't necessarily easy.

Often, the argument goes that closed organizational structures come from those in power clinging to their power and control. In many cases, this may be true, but I don't think it fully explains the existence of closed systems. In the article that Jamie Notter wrote for Associations Now last month based on his and Maddie Grant's book Humanize, he did a nice job explaining another major cause (and staying power) of closed systems: they're incredibly efficient.

Thus, moving toward more openness and inclusivity in group action or decision making comes at the price of efficiency, and that's often enough to stop such efforts cold. The traditional model of decision making just doesn't scale upward very well. Three people can come to a decision fairly easily, but 30 people would take much longer, let alone 300 or 3,000.

In my mind, a more open organizational model can still have levels, but the levels must become flatter and wider—i.e., more people must be allowed to be involved in meaningful ways closer to the point where actual decisions are made. And hierarchy is still OK, too, but the flow of information up and down the levels must be freer. Designing a system that can do these effectively and efficiently is, again, not easy, but as Jamie and Maddie and others argue, technology and social media are making it more achievable (as well as more imperative).

I'm curious how other associations have tried to tackle this challenge. What methods have or haven't worked for you in trying to make your association's governance and planning processes more open and inclusive? If you've had any luck (or hard lessons learned), please share.

[Also, if you're interested in contributing your viewpoints on ASAE's strategic framework, please join the discussion at http://collaborate.asaecenter.org/leadASAE.]

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November 7, 2011

Dispatch: Day 1, Healthcare Associations Conference 2011

The following is a guest post from Paula Eichenbrenner, vice president for advancement, American Society for Nutrition.

How does healthcare association management require a specialized skill set? The 200 attendees at ASAE's 2011 Healthcare Associations Conference could likely list 200 (or 2,000!) examples. Many of the unique challenges facing our community were apparent in today's presentations and conversations. The opening general session was delivered by Wired magazine Executive Editor Thomas Goetz (@tgoetz), who pointed to the revolutionary potential of personalized medicine and healthcare technology.

Learning labs (8 total) tackled topics relevant to executives, marketers, education developers, and fundraisers. Attendee Billye Potts said the most applicable point she'll bring back to the Association for Healthcare Foodservice (@ahfnetwork) is the importance of the "it question," discussed in "Your Healthcare Members Love You … But Do the Hospital Systems Know Who You Are?" In other words, AHF will strive to demonstrate the critical value of membership in their association and how AHF membership helps hospital professionals better serve their systems.

At the session "Online Education: Making Wise Business Choices," Society of Critical Care Medicine (@SCCM) staff shared their experience building the society's learning portal, LearnICU. "Real talk" about the SCCM LMS, related infrastructure, and program marketing highlighted several big issues for other healthcare associations to consider when delving into online learning. If this is a priority, remember: it's going to be impossible to satisfy everyone, particularly if you're addressing the needs of students and program directors. And looking to cover costs incurred in disseminating online education? Good luck with that! Audience members advised to consider price sensitivities (e.g., instructor-led courses may correlate with higher registration fees) and fundraising (bundle annual-meeting sponsorship with online content).

But wait! Don't revise your sponsorship prospectus until you check in on the latest regulations impacting industry funding, ably outlined this afternoon by Susan Cantrell and Tom Sullivan (@policymed). Parsing updates on political, media, legal, and popular pressure on medical societies, the experts also made predictive suggestions on the regulatory landscape for 2012 and beyond. Implications are numerous; for example, various state-level regulations could influence your site selection for future conference. If you're trying to keep up with this facet of healthcare association management, check out Susan and Tom's presentation slides for the five scenarios presented for audience interaction. Additional resources include the "Ask ACCME" feature online.

And whatever you do, build interorganizational conversations! The afternoon lab "Competition and Collaboration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" emphasized the value in partnering. Speakers coined the term "coopetition," a cross between cooperation and competition. With the conclusion of Day 1's learning labs, we wrapped up with a healthcare reform panel in the style of The View. Five presenters bandied about the implications of the federal elections on the future of healthcare legislation, as well as legal challenges to the ACA and more. See you tomorrow!

ASAE's Healthcare Community Committee (#asaehlth) addresses the educational, networking and knowledge needs of association professionals working in healthcare organizations. Let us know what you'd value as a HC professional in the comments, and join the Healthcare Community Cafe on ASAE's Collaborate site.


November 3, 2011

Quick clicks: Members come first edition

Several of this week's links remind us of the importance of serving members and helping them succeed, and they also offer some advice on how to do just that. Enjoy.

Chapters and social media. Lowell Aplebaum writes on the AssociationTECH blog that social-media know-how can vastly increase the success of association chapter leaders, and component relations professionals should provide such training.

Customer service and social media. Maddie Grant, CAE, provides an easy-to-follow use case for how to make your customer-service department more efficient and more effective via social technology.

Member (or donor) relations. Laura Otten writes that nonprofits too often fall into a dangerous sense of entitlement. "No funder owes us funding simply because it has funded us in the past," she writes. Her focus is on charitable nonprofits and donors, but the lesson translates to associations and their members, as well.

Meeting member needs. Anna Caraveli shares the story of the turnaround at the Photo Marketing Association, which changed course by taking on a new perspective. "Paradoxically … it is fighting and advocating for members rather than for the association's agenda … that best serves the association's interests," she writes.

Conference evaluations. Sarah Ruzek at the Midwest SAE's Associations Live blog offers several ideas for questions for your conference/education evaluation surveys.

Staff development. Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, writes that, in making a case for investing in professional development for your entry- and mid-level staff, you should answer the same, age-old question that marketers aim to answer: What's in it for me?

Web design. Dodd Caldwell writes "Ugly nonprofit websites aren't surprising … great web design can be an even bigger differentiator for a nonprofit than for a for-profit." And then he describes the five elements of great nonprofit website design.

Work vs. talk. Wes Trochlil writes (twice) about the importance of doing actual work. Sounds silly, but Wes says, in his experience, his most successful clients are the ones who understand that even great technology can't do all your work for you and who act on one or two ideas rather than talking about a dozen.

Governance. Eric Lanke, CAE, adds to the conversation on Race for Relevance and suggests that, if the book's recommendations seem outlandish or unfeasible for your association, they nonetheless make for a starting point for negotiating for change with your board or other stakeholders.


November 1, 2011

A Hard (Numbers) Thing to Talk About

When your copy of the November issue of Associations Now arrives in your mailbox this week, please do me a favor: Skip to the end. We've done some tweaking to our back-page feature, changing it from Back to You—a grab bag of statistics and anecdotes related to articles in that issue of the magazine—to Hard Numbers, a quick overview of statistics relating to a particular topic in association leadership. I'm eager to hear what you think. (Of course, once you're done with the back page, it'd be great if you could go back and read the rest of the articles too.)

The first topic I wanted to focus on in Hard Numbers is diversity, largely because it's a topic that doesn't get discussed often enough, be it in the pages of a magazine or in the larger association community. There are good reasons to keep bringing it up: One data point in Hard Numbers notes that just 14 percent of nonprofit board members are people of color.

That's a striking statistic, but what can organizations do about it? (That's the problem with just laying out numbers, of course; they can point out the urgency of something, but they do little good in terms of helping you design a strategy.) As it happens, over the weekend a former colleague of mine delivered some straight talk on the matter. Dylan Tweney, editor of the website VentureBeat, wrote a blog post titled "How to fix Silicon Valley's race problem: A 4-step program for white guys."

As the title suggests, the focus is on high-tech entrepreneurship, but much of what he says applies to other arenas, and it's rare to see such an article explicitly directed to the white male leaders of organizations who are empowered to fix the problem. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by what Tweney says about the transformative power of talking about race in the first place, and how silence doesn't fix the problem. "[W]hen you refuse to talk about racism and race, whether from fear of embarrassment or out of ignorance, you can't learn," he writes. "If you pretend that it's just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can't learn."

Needless to say, some commenters on the post are questioning whether racism in the Valley exists to the degree Tweney says it does. That, at least, opens up the discussion. But what conversations work beyond just a blog post? What can associations do within their offices and among their members to bring the discussion about diversity—and especially diverse association leadership—out into the open, with a goal of making leadership more diverse?